What We Think We Know About the 2021 NBA Draft (So Far)

The 2021 NBA draft has one of the strongest classes in recent years. Here is everything you need to watch as the NCAA season continues.
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With another year comes another draft, and here we are again, wrangling with a wave of new prospects and accompanying questions. Obviously, it’s still quite early in the 2021 draft process, plus the NBA and college basketball are operating on somewhat unstable footing, with the circumstantial challenges of COVID-19 hanging over both seasons. So it’s still a stretch to treat anything we think we know as particularly conclusive when projecting for a summer draft. But with most college programs at this point having played eight to 10 games and international leagues well underway, we certainly have more to work with visually and statistically as far as draft-eligible players are concerned.

It’s still too soon for a mock draft to be of much use—we’ll let the NBA slate play out a bit first to allow for a more predictive draft order. But for front offices, the scouting process never really stops, and there are a number of key situations at the forefront of the early draft dialogue. Here’s what to watch for as the season moves forward.

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Cade Cunningham holds his ground

As far as I’m concerned, the No. 1 spot in the draft remains Cunningham’s to lose. It’s tough for me to envision that changing on my personal board, thanks in large part to the extensive opportunities I’ve had to evaluate him before he arrived at Oklahoma State. Cunningham is simply too good at too many things that matter too much relative to winning games in the NBA for me to change that stance, barring a crazy twist of fate between now and the draft. He’s led the Cowboys to a respectable 7–3 record, and their three losses in Big 12 play have come by a combined seven points. That’s a remarkable achievement, noting that Cunningham is anchoring an inexperienced team that’s had to incorporate several new players and otherwise lacks NBA-caliber talent.

The sense I get is that many scouts are more than comfortable with Cunningham as the top choice right now. But I’d expect there to be some internal debate around the NBA, given the varying degrees of exposure to Cunningham, the fact that teams aren’t traveling to scout players live at the moment, in the interest of being COVID-safe, and the fact that Cade’s statistical profile isn’t quite as elite as you might hope based on the way he was billed before college. He’s turned the ball over a bit more and assisted a bit less than you’d hope, and a lack of shooting around him has led to defenses packing the paint successfully. It’s important to note Cunningham should thrive with opportunities to play more spread pick-and-roll at the NBA level, where his size and vision will matter more, and his lack of explosiveness can be better mitigated with a ball screen.

Of course, a scenario where Cunningham actually cedes the top spot requires other legitimate candidates. Which brings us to …

A clear top five emerges

Cunningham, USC’s Evan Mobley, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, and G League Ignite stars Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green were the first five players on my initial December Big Board, and that hasn’t changed. Based on all we know right now, those are the prospects teams will be discussing at the top of the draft the rest of the way. From my perspective, Cunningham is a cut above the others. With Mobley and Suggs leaving strong impressions to start their college careers and garnering a good deal of positive press, it won’t be a shock if they continue to gain footing, publicly and privately (although I’d caution against either actually being the top pick). Beyond a pair of scrimmages that were provided to teams on film, there hasn’t been much opportunity to check on Kuminga or Green. Both are legit talents jostling for position in this mix, with the Ignite team set to play in the upcoming G League bubble now expected to take place at Walt Disney World in Orlando. That’s going to be a critical stage for both players to improve their standing.

Anyway, the key takeaway here is that there are already five players teams should feel good-to-great about ending up with on draft night, as opposed to the 2020 draft, when there was little consensus and the top picks all came with obvious caveats. This draft projects to be a bit more kind and a tad less strenuous for lottery teams who end up with high picks and are hoping to land a franchise-changing piece. And that’s already meaningful in the context of a shortened 72-game NBA season, which has come with a slew of unpredictable results as teams have gotten oriented these past few weeks. To what degree this helps facilitate tanking, stealthy or otherwise, we’ll see.

The impact of growing pains

The most challenging piece of the draft puzzle at the moment is sussing out the struggles of a number of freshmen who were viewed as potential lottery picks coming into the season. Kentucky’s Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke, Duke’s Jalen Johnson, Stanford’s Ziaire Williams, and Texas’s Greg Brown have underperformed to various extents. More leeway than usual ought to be afforded here: Teams have played fewer games than normal at this point, practicing and acclimating to a college team in a pandemic comes with different challenges, and of course, these are young people trying to play basketball under unusual and trying circumstances. More than ever, it’s going to be critical to let the entire season and body of work play out and manifest before passing judgment.

We’re working with incomplete information and will be for some time, but the number of one-and-done type players struggling to make a positive, consistent impact in college does create uncertainty surrounding the quality of this year’s lottery, once you get beyond the top five picks. My feeling is that this will probably lead to some level of devaluation of a 2021 first-round pick at the trade deadline (with the obvious exception of high lottery teams) following an offseason when nobody was keen to part with those firsts. This could still wind up being the deep draft class teams were hoping for, but the NBA is still waiting to find out. Safe to say, there’s a ton of room for players to work their way into the mid-to-late lottery over the next few months.

So how good is this draft really?

Trying to establish a draft as “good” before players have actually spent two or three years in the league is always a little bit flawed, because it’s almost always dictated in the public eye by perceived experts who invest extra time in these things, but time and again have proved to be completely fallible (I’ve been wrong before, and will be wrong again and again, and I’m not the only one). Behind the scenes, teams have much more time to withold judgment while they form opinions. It’s accurate to say that there’s been a significant amount of excitement around the NBA about the 2021 draft over the past eight to 10 months, but it’s also important to note that a lot of that dialogue came in the context of everyone being exhausted and frustrated by the extended amount of time we were forced to spend with the 2020 class, which offered depth but lacked an obvious prize at the top. There’s probably a degree of bias built in there, which was compounded by the fact that NBA teams had limited access to this year’s freshman class after the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games, Hoop Summit, Nike Academy and other summer scouting events were canceled.

Right now, we have Cunningham at the top and the Mobley-Suggs-Kuminga-Green group as a strong buffer. If those five players all pan out, everyone will feel great. But with a few exceptions, the rest of the class has yet to coalesce in a meaningful way (and understandably so). The strange nature of the season may create fluky results, and if many top prospects continue to struggle or miss time, picking as high as eighth or ninth could end up being much less appealing than we might have thought. The value spectrum here is fickle, and NBA teams’ present inability to scout players in live settings makes things even trickier. There will be mistakes that stem from another weird, unprecedented scouting cycle, and there will be potential franchise-changers available on draft night—perhaps more than usual in both cases. The mantra here needs to be patience, and mercifully, it’s only January.